How Does Direct Mail Credit Card Process Work?

Have you ever wondered how banks or credit unions can mail credit cards offers to you at your current address? How does the process work behind the scene? What impacts a campaign? Why do you receive the same offers from the same issuers but in different envelops? If you have such questions, I am here to pull back the curtain a bit by talking about the Direct Mail (DM) process in general, what impacts the success of a DM campaign and some less known details.

Direct Mail Process

Let’s go backwards from the moment you tear up a mail from an issuer. Whenever an issuer, whether it’s a bank or a credit union, sends you an offer, it must contain information on the offer as well as credit terms and conditions, as mandated by regulations. Inside a mail piece, some issuers include a postage-free envelop that customers can use to send back a filled paper application. Since each piece of paper is an expense, some elect not to send a paper application to save costs, especially during the times of supply chain constraints and inflation. In that case, customers can go directly to the issuer’s website, either by inputing the address manually on a browser or by scanning a QR code. They can also call customer care and apply on the phone.

Each mail piece carries an access code and a reservation code. These codes will be used to identify which offer is attached to an application. Normally, an issuer assigns a unique identifier to an offer for easy and transparent tracking. More on this later.

How do issuers know who you are and where you live? The answer is by working with credit bureaus. Credit bureaus like Experian, Equifax or Trans Union collect a lot of data on Americans. They have your latest address, your social security number, how many trades (mortgage, loans, credit cards…) that you have, how many with a balance that you own, so on and so forth. Issuers can work with these bureaus to pull the names of prospects for DM campaigns. The caveat is that in addition to a fee per name, issuers need to commit that they will send an offer to the names that they pull. Said another way, issuers can’t just call bureaus out of a blue and say: hey, I want to pull sensitive information of these people, but I don’t send them any offer.

Because of this requirement and the fact that each credit card is an unsecured loan that carries risks of losses, issuers must have a plan as to whom they want to send what. To answer these questions, issuers rely on their Credit Risk department, Marketing team and historical data. Credit Risk determines the risk parameters in which new acquisitions must fall. For instance, some banks are more comfortable with people who have little credit history than other banks. Some want to acquire folks with FICO less than 660 than others.

After Credit Risk defines the broad risk parameters, Marketing will work on the specific criteria and offers for a campaign. Each year, Marketing will conjure a campaign calendar that details how many pieces will be sent, when a campaign starts, which offers will be sent, how many applications and accounts can be expected. These details are determined with the help of historical data. Hence, the longer an issuer has been around, the more data it has to make informed decisions regarding DM campaigns.

What Impacts A Direct Mail Campaign?

The biggest factor is whether an issuer sends the right offer to the right audience. People have different preferences. Some don’t like complex rewards structures while others love to maximize rewards points. Some want to transfer balance to a card with a much lower interest rate while others just want to get a cash bonus for their activity. Issuers need to figure out who likes what and sends an appropriate offer. There is a big caveat. Credit cards are highly regulated in the US. Issuers can’t be caught being discriminatory towards any portion of the population. They can use certain behavioral traits as targeting attributes. What they can’t do is to use demographic elements. For instance, income, age, marital status, occupation or place of residence, just to name a few, are strictly forbidden.

Indicators from the bureaus such as how many trades a person has, the age of the oldest/latest trade, the total balance or how many delinquencies a person has can be used in a campaign. Issuers and bureaus themselves also try to use machine learning to build predictive models based on these legal attributes to gain an edge. The better the models are, the more efficient DM campaigns become.

Of course, offers with numerous benefits will excite prospects. As credit card is a fragmented business with a lot of competition, issuers cannot afford to come to prospects with bare bone offers. However, they must also think about their bottom line as rich products tend to be money-losers. Would you apply for a credit card with zero interest on balance transfer and purchase for 20 months, 2% cash back on everything and $400 bonus offer after spending $1,000 in the first 3 months? You likely would, but I can almost guarantee that the issuer of that card would not make a cent of profit. Hence, it’s all about finding that sweet spot between profitability and acquisition efficiency.

Additionally, mail design, paper quality, paper color and copywriting can contribute to the success of a campaign. I am sure you can recall seeing the same offer from the same company, but in different mail designs with different types of paper. Issuers conduct a lot of tests to see which paper or design can generate an extra basis point or two. Furthermore, the use of QR code can also help. USPS currently has a deal in which they will lower the postage expense if issuers use their Informed Delivery service. This is a numbers game. It’s all about finding those extra basis points in response rates.

Behind-The-Scene Details

Let’s start with promo/campaign codes. These codes are usually invisible to credit applicants. They are what issuers use internally to identify offers. In fact, each offer can have two promo codes: the parent code and the child code. The child promo code represents applicants that are upgraded or downgraded, depending on the setup of each campaign. For instance, anybody who applies for a Visa credit card and is awarded a credit line of more than $5,000 will receive a Signature card, instead of a Classic card. Signature cards carry more benefits and give more interchange revenue to issuers. The child promo codes for Visa campaigns are usually assigned to these “upgrades”. For Mastercard, the parent promo codes are given to the higher tier and the child codes are given to the “downgrades”.

What happens between bureaus and issuers? After an issuer finalizes a campaign’s strategy using criteria from a chosen bureau, the issuer will send the bureau such criteria and get back at least three files. The first file will go to the printing house and have some necessary information such as name, address, promo code or a unique identifier tagged to a mail piece called Solicitation ID. The file will not have people’s social security numbers. Nor will it have all the attributes that the bureau has at its disposal because the printing house doesn’t need to have such information.

The second file will go to the issuer and it has fields such as Solicitation ID, promo code and all the targeting attributes that the issuer and the bureau already agreed upon beforehand. These attributes will enable the issuer to analyze campaigns and see what can be the most predictive of success. Almost every issuer usually tasks its Machine Learning team to use multiple bureau attributes to come up with a predictive model so that it can use to generate more applications in future campaigns. Like the first, this second file will not have Social Security Numbers as Marketing or Machine Learning team does not need that kind of data.

The third file will also go to the issuer and be integrated into its decisioning engine. This file will have Social Security Number as Credit Risk and Operations will use it to make underwriting decisions. Of course, these teams don’t need all the targeting attributes as they are less relevant to them than to Marketing.

How do issuers deploy custom models? The answer is that issuers don’t “deploy” the models themselves. Credit bureaus do. After finalizing a model, an issuer will send the “formula” to its chosen credit bureau and the bureau will calculate the score based on such “formula”. The score will be appended to the appropriate files mentioned above and sent back to the issuer every campaign. The issuer will use the real performance data to validate the model and adjust, if necessary.

Every issuer must make sure that all models are in compliance with all lending regulations. Annually, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) conducts an audit to see if financial institutions comply with the regulations. Hence, every model must get approval from an issuer’s Compliance before deployment.

That’s all I have for today’s entry. I hope you find it useful. Drop me a line if you do or if you have questions.

Apple and Major League Soccer

Yesterday, Apple and Major League Soccer (MLS) announced a deal that would make the Apple TV app the home of all MLS games globally in the next 10 years, starting in 2023. Fans will be able to stream all MLS games, with no blackout dates, through a subscription service only available on the Apple TV App. The League has not yet announced the details of said subscription, but are expected to do so in the coming months. Apple said the subscription would also feature highlights, replays, analyses and other original programming. Furthermore, the partnership will also seek to enhance coverage of MLS teams in Apple News and fans can watch highlights right from the News App.

Subscribers of Apple TV+, which is Apple’s own streaming service, can watch a few games at no additional cost. A limited number of games will be available for free, even to non-subscribers of Apple TV+. MLS season ticket holders will automatically receive a complimentary subscription to the MLS streaming service as an additional perk.

The two parties didn’t disclose the value of this deal, but folks familiar with the matter said that it’s worth at least $2.5 billion in its entirety, approximately $250 million a year. The current deal with ESPN+ is worth $90 million and will expire after this year. It was reported that MLS was hoping to make $300 million in annual revenue due to increasing viewership and popularity. Apart from this deal with Apple, MLS is also talking to a few cable companies over the rights to broadcast some games on linear TV.

Below is what each party had to say about this partnership:

For the first time in the history of sports, fans will be able to access everything from a major professional sports league in one place. It’s a dream come true for MLS fans, soccer fans, and anyone who loves sports. No fragmentation, no frustration — just the flexibility to sign up for one convenient service that gives you everything MLS, anywhere and anytime you want to watch. We can’t wait to make it easy for even more people to fall in love with MLS and root for their favorite club.”

Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president of Services

Apple is the perfect partner to further accelerate the growth of MLS and deepen the connection between our clubs and their fans. Given Apple’s ability to create a best-in-class user experience and to reach fans everywhere, it’ll be incredibly easy to enjoy MLS matches anywhere, whether you’re a super fan or casual viewer.”

Don Garber, MLS’s commissioner

Why MLS picked Apple?

In my opinion, it’s about reach and accessibility. A unique part of this deal is that Apple secured the streaming rights globally, not just within the US; which is very different from the usual practice of rights being given over select geographical areas. Apple is one of, if not, the most global and recognizable brands in the world. Its Apple TV app is available on many types of devices, not just those that run on Apple operating systems. By working with Apple, MLS has a partner that can bring the game to the global audience instantly. There is no need for MLS to set up its streaming service. It’s not an easy task, especially for a global audience. With this deal, MLS is responsible for generating content and Apple will take care of the distribution. Moreover, the Apple TV app is native on Apple devices and doesn’t require any more installation. Fans can just head to the app and subscribe to the MLS service; which the Commissioner already alluded to in his remark.

The second reason is reach. Everything Apple does is widely covered and followed. This blog entry is one example. Apple can use its massive following and Marketing expertise to increase the awareness of MLS and help the League become more global. I have no doubt that we’ll see more ads from Apple about this deal, more mentions during events & earning calls, as well as more articles from news outlets, fans and bloggers. From the League perspective, instead of running Marketing campaigns in each part of the world, either by itself or partnering with an agency, I imagine that leveraging Apple is easier and more effective.

Why Apple partnered with MLS?

I find this comment from Don Garber, the Commissioner of MLS, very interesting

This is a minimum guarantee. It’s not a rights fee,” Garber said of the non-traditional deal. “…So if we exceed the minimum guarantee, then we share in the upside in that guarantee. If we’re able to sell our linear rights for what we hope and expect to sell them for, then we would even exceed our expectations.

Source: Tennessean

The new MLS subscription service is only available through the Apple TV app. Hence, Apple will be the one collecting the subscription dollars upfront and grow its Services revenue, at least on the surface. Based on the comment from the Commissioner, I figure no matter how much revenue the MLS streaming service brings in, Apple will pay the League at least $250 million a year. Past that figure, the tech giant will be able to take a share of the upside. It’s clear that this arrangement will do two things: 1/ Apple has something exclusive to sell to its customers; 2/ MLS will have a partner incentivized to promote the League globally as much as possible. With a lot of cash and 73% in Services’ gross margin, I think Apple can afford the $250 million figure promised to MLS.

If an MLS subscription costs $100/year or less than $10/month, Apple will need at least 2.5 million subscribers around the world for it to actually make any money from selling the service itself. Given the current awareness of MLS, especially to countries outside the US, is 2.5 million subscribers an attainable threshold? Unlikely in my opinion, but over a long term, who knows? The financial success of this partnership for Apple hinges on the future popularity of MLS. There are a couple of factors that may come in handy:

The first is that the World Cup 2026 will be hosted by Canada, the US and Mexico. As the world’s biggest soccer event, the World Cup will undoubtedly raise the awareness of soccer as a sport and of MLS. Currently having 28 teams, the League will add one more next year and plan to eventually feature 32 teams in the near future. The more local teams there are, the more interest such teams will generate among communities.

The second factor is the arrival of superstars who make their names in Europe and have massive global following. We already saw household names join the MLS in the past, including David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and David Villa. Recently, Giorgio Chiellini, a popular Italian veteran, signed a deal with LAFC. But MLS would rise to a whole new level if it could acquire superstars such as Messi or Suarez. These players did it all in Europe and are already rumored to play in the US soon due to the media & business landscape as well as the Latino fanbase in the country. The arrival of legends such as Messi would be an instant boost to the MLS and its streaming service.

Apple wants to keep existing customers loyal and appeal to new ones. Sports are a great way to consumers’ heart and Apple seems to agree. Before the partnership with MLS, it struck a deal with Major League Baseball to broadcast games on Friday nights. There were reports that claimed Apple already secured rights to NFL games on Sunday nights. All this sports content will enrich the Apple digital ecosystem and help the company make more money. Two possibilities that I can think of:

  • Apple TV+ is natively available on Apple devices through the Apple TV app. Android users can also access the streaming service, but only through browsers. That’s inconvenient. Great sports content on Apple TV+ can give a nudge to on-the-fence Android users to switch to Apple devices. Whatever money the company lost on this front can be made up by higher margin services (Apple Care, Ads, iCloud, payments, etc..) and slightly more expensive devices
  • At $4.99/month, Apple TV+ is one of the cheapest options on the market. With more games in the library now, Apple can make a case to raise the subscription price. Even a $1 increase could lead to millions more in revenue

From my perspective, this is a good partnership for both parties, more so for MLS than Apple, given its current level of popularity globally. But Apple is known for its patience and long-term planning. The company must have a plan in mind and I am curious to learn more about it.

Interchange and the major factors that can influence it

Have you ever wondered why some merchants enforce an additional fee when customers pay with credit cards? Or why do some merchants politely request customers to pay by cash when a purchase is less than $5? Or why can some fintech startups offer debit cards with rewards when big banks don’t seem to bother?

The answer is Interchange. Cash has been the medium of transactions for centuries. When a shopper hands cash to a merchant in exchange for goods or services, the merchant takes 100% the amount of such exchange and deals with taxes when the time comes. The problem with cash is that 1/ storing a large amount of cash requires a lot of effort for merchants and 2/ not many customers find it convenient to carry cash around, especially for large transactions. Card transactions bring convenience. Merchants get paid in the form of increased balance in a bank account while consumers can spend without carrying a thick purse or wallet. With credit cards, consumers can transact on the credit line extended by a financial institution. But as the old saying “there is no free lunch” goes, such convenience comes at a cost and that cost is Interchange.

Interchange is a small fee that merchants have to pay on every card transaction. The recipient of interchange is financial institutions (FIs) that issue debit or credit cards to shoppers. These FIs use this revenue stream to either pay for their operational expenses or fund rewards that are promised to consumers. Since doing business nowadays always involves card payments, interchange is one of the expenses that merchants can’t avoid.

How much do merchants have to pay on every transaction? The amount of interchange is determined by interchange rates mandated by networks such as Visa, Mastercard, Discover or American Express. There are a lot of factors that can influence these rates and below is a list of factors that I know (by no means, it’s an exhaustive list):

Merchant Category Code

Merchant Category Code (MCC) is a 4-digit code that represents the type of business area in which a merchant operates. For instance, 5411 refers to grocery stores while 5300 represents wholesale clubs. Some companies such as Walmart or Amazon can span across multiple MCCs because of the breadth of their offerings while others like mom-and-pop restaurants have only one MCC. In some industries, including airlines or hotels, a merchant can have its own code. For instance, 3000 and 3001 are assigned to United Airlines and American Airlines respectively.

High frequency categories such as Gas and Grocery carry low interchange rates while others such as Dining or Travel fetch higher rates. Whenever there is a push to promote a specific area, networks raise the interchange rates as an incentive for card issuers. Take Electric Vehicle Charging 5552 as an example. Its rate for consumer cards is 3%+ which is much higher than the average 1.7% across other categories.

Sometimes, it’s easy for consumers to guess MCCs of their purchases. However, it’s much trickier when it comes to big merchants such as Walmart or Amazon. The only way to know is to wait for the transaction to be posted.

Merchant

Giant merchants such as Costco, Walmart or Amazon command great bargaining power and can negotiate a special low rate with the networks. Think about it this way. The rates that I have seen for these companies are around 0.7%. At $500 billion in annual revenue that the likes of Amazon or Walmart generate, interchange expense amounts to $35 million a year. If they had to pay 1.4% in interchange, the expense would double to $70 million. Their retail business margin is not big enough for them to ignore that difference.

Card-Present or Card-Not-Present

A transaction is considered as “card present” only if a card is swiped or tapped or if an EMV chip is processed. A transaction by fax, Internet, mail or over the phone is considered “card not present”. Since card-not-present transactions do not require a cardholder or a physical card to be present at the time of the transactions, the risk of fraud is higher. Hence, issuers receive higher interchange rates on CNP transactions for taking on additional risks.

Networks

There are a few major networks such as Visa, Mastercard, Discover, American Express and JCB. Each has its own pricing schemes and that can affect the rates that merchants have to pay.

Plastic Type

The type of your card also influences interchange rates significantly. On the Visa Consumer side, there are usually three types of cards: Visa Classic, Visa Signature and its highest tier, Visa Signature Preferred. Visa Signature Preferred comes with much higher rates than Classic or Signature. Normally, if your credit limit is above $5,000, your card is qualified for Signature. To qualify for Signature Preferred, a cardholder typically needs to meet a certain spend threshold. To my knowledge, an issuer sends a list of cardholders that meet certain criteria to Visa so that they can flagged as Signature Preferred. If successful, the issuer can earn a decent amount of additional interchange revenue. On the Mastercard, there are also similar schemes and tiers.

Consumer or Commercial

The rule of thumb is that commercial credit cards have higher interchange rates than consumer cards.

Credit or Debit

Credit cards command higher interchange rates than debit cards, simply because credit cards are much riskier as a product than debit cards.

Purchase Volume

Sometimes, the size of a transaction can affect how much merchants have to pay. For instance, American Express has different rates for different ticket size tiers across key categories. Typically, the bigger a transaction, the higher the interchange rates.

Point of Entry

If you shop in store, whether you use an EMV chip, swipe your card, tap your plastic on the card reader or pay with a mobile wallet can affect the interchange rate of that transaction. To make it more complex, the type of mobile wallet that consumers use is also a factor. For instance, staged wallets (PayPal, Cash App) which break down a transaction into funding and payment stages command slightly higher rates than pass-through wallets (Apple Pay, Samsung Pay) that pass payment details directly to merchants. The alleged reason why there is such a difference is that staged wallet providers do not provide as much information regarding payments as the networks would like and that could make the verification task a tad more challenging.

Regulations

To help smaller banks compete, the US government allows debit card issuers with less than $10 billion in assets to charge significantly higher interchange rates than bigger issuers. That’s usually known as the Durbin Amendment. Fintech companies use this loophole to partner with small less known banks to offer debit cards with rewards. In many countries, including the European Union, interchange rates are capped by laws and much lower than what we see here in the US.

Apple Pay Later

WWDC is where Apple shows off its new software updates and sets the expectation for what is to come in the next year. It kicked off on Monday with a flurry of announcements on iOS16, MacOS Ventury, watchOS 9 and iPadOS 16. Among these announcements, I want to focus on one that is really interesting from a financial product standpoint and, to me, the next step forward towards making Apple not just a consumer brand. Per Apple on Monday:

Apple Pay Later provides users in the US with a seamless and secure way to split the cost of an Apple Pay purchase into four equal payments spread over six weeks, with zero interest and no fees of any kind.3 Built into Apple Wallet and designed with users’ financial health in mind, Apple Pay Later makes it easy to view, track, and repay Apple Pay Later payments within Wallet. Users can apply for Apple Pay Later when they are checking out with Apple Pay, or in Wallet. Apple Pay Later is available everywhere Apple Pay is accepted online or in-app, using the Mastercard network.4 Additionally, with Apple Pay Order Tracking, users can receive detailed receipts and order tracking information in Wallet for Apple Pay purchases with participating merchants.

When the news on the service broke on Monday, it triggered a lot of questions due to the lack of details. Until yesterday when Apple agreed to disclose more information. Per CNBC:

A wholly owned subsidiary of Apple will check user credit and extend short-term loans to users for Apple Pay Later, the tech giant said. Apple has partnered with Mastercard, which interacts with the vendors and offers a white label BNPL product called Installments, which Apple is using. Apple Card issuer Goldman Sachs also is involved as the technical issuer of the loans and is the official BIN sponsor, the company said. But Apple is not using Goldman’s credit decisions or its balance sheet for issuing the loans.

Apple will run a soft credit check to ensure that borrowers are capable of paying back the loans, which will likely be capped at around $1,000, the company said. If Apple Pay Later loans aren’t repaid, then Apple will no longer extend those users credit. But the company said it won’t report the missed payments to credit bureaus. Apple will initially launch Pay Later in the United States

Per Bloomberg:

A wholly owned subsidiary will oversee credit checks and make decisions on loans for the service, which is called Apple Pay Later. The business — Apple Financing LLC — has necessary state lending licenses to offer the feature, though it operates separately from the main Apple corporation, the company said in response to Bloomberg questions. 

Apple has been working to move many elements of its financial services in-house as part of a secret initiative dubbed “Breakout.” In addition to taking on lending, credit checks and decision-making, Apple is working on its own payment processing engine that may eventually replace CoreCard Corp., Bloomberg reported in March. It’s also working on new customer-service functions, fraud analysis, tools for calculating interest and rewards for other services.

The company is also working on a longer-term “buy now, pay later” program called Apple Pay Monthly Installments, Bloomberg has reported. While the shorter-term Apple Pay Later offering doesn’t use Goldman Sachs or other major partners, the longer-term plan is likely to rely on an array of other companies — including Goldman Sachs — that could offer different plans and interest rates. 

The new revelations shattered some of my original assumptions. At first, I thought users could turn on the payment plan after the fact, just like what Affirm Debit+, American Express or Chase offers. Now, it seems shoppers have to choose upfront whether to use an installment plan. Second, I didn’t expect Apple to go as far as securing state licenses in order to offer loans. The report from Bloomberg suggested that the company had a long-term and ambitious plan regarding financial services, a plan that is big enough for them to take on more compliance work, the underwriting itself and possibly the loan balance on its balance sheet. Nonetheless, because this is Apple, a company known for being a control freak over user experience and key capabilities, its desire to underwrite loans, process payments and battle fraud are totally on brand.

Even though the newly reported details are helpful, I still have some lingering questions that I’d love to understand more:

  • The transaction amount is currently capped at $1,000. Is there a minimum limit? Can I still go to a restaurant and put my dinner expense of $20 on a payment plan?
  • Apple Pay Later is slated to go live in the US later this year; which is not a surprise. If there is a plan to expand internationally, how long will that take? Apple Card went live almost three years ago and it’s still exclusively available in the US
  • Costco doesn’t accept Mastercard at its stores. Can I still use Apple Pay Later there? That seems like a significant use case for shoppers in the US
  • What does the application process look like? I can’t imagine that any cashier or customer would wait comfortably for a two-minute in-store Apple Pay Later transaction
  • iPhone is very popular among young folks who don’t have a lot of credit history. This type of financial product definitely resonates with them. How much risks would Apple tolerate from this population?
  • What is the unit economics of a transaction? How much would Apple charge merchants?

BNPL providers usually charge 2-6% of a transaction amount. These providers argue that they earn this cut because they raise the average order volume (AOV) as well as bring more leads to a business. While Apple Pay Later will also help merchants increase the AOV, what would Apple do to generate more leads at the top of the funnel? We already see promotional emails like this from Apple, but will Apple add a Deals tab somewhere in the Wallet?

Implication for Apple’s future

For the argument sake, let’s assume Apple will earn in revenue 3% of all Apple Pay Later transaction amount, including the 0.15% cut it already has on every Apple Pay transaction. Affirm did $13 billion in loan volume in the US in the last 12 months. If Apple Pay Later had the same volume, a 3% cut means that the company would earn almost $400 million in revenue, before expenses. It’s not nothing, but it’s still essentially a rounding error for a machine that generated $365 billion in revenue last year.

The bulk of the value that Apple Pay Later brings is to increase the stickiness of the Apple ecosystem. Existing users have one more reason to stay locked in. Those on the fence have one more reason to lean towards Apple. Merchants will be more motivated to add Apple Pay to their checkout pages. Regarding merchants, I do think Apple has a big plan in place to become more than just a consumer brand.

Going back to the first announcement, buried inside the text and overshadowed by the installment product is the fact that consumers will soon be able to track orders from Wallet on Apple Pay purchases. For this to happen, Wallet will effectively become an ordering system where merchants can process orders and have the delivery status updated. Instead of having an iphone as a payment reader and another software as an ordering system, Wallet can function as both. All a merchant needs is an iPhone. Here is how I see it:

First, Apple launched Apple Business Essentials, a subscription program that helps small companies manage their Apple devices. Then, the company introduced Tap To Pay with iPhone, which allows merchants to use their iPhone as a payment terminal without any extra hardware. A few days ago, Block (Square) said that they would bring Tap To Pay with iPhone to Square sellers who can use their Square POS app on an iPhone to receive payments in stores. Next, Apple Pay Later offers another payment option to shoppers and all the benefits that BNPL can bring to sellers, including higher average ticket value and conversion rates. Last but not least, merchants can use Wallet as an ordering system. Can you see the picture now? Payment is an integral part of doing business nowadays. If Apple devices and services can become integral to companies’ payments, Apple will have a stronger case for Apple Business Essentials. Far-fetched? Perhaps, but I am curious to see if my prediction comes true.

Implications for other BNPL providers

CEOs of Klarna and Affirm already got on TV to appear defiant and confident in the outlook of their business. But I suspect that the last few days already triggered some serious discussions in the boardrooms. How could they not take this seriously? Apple has some advantages that none of these BNPL firms have. First, Apple is one of, if not the most, recognizable and talked about brands in the world. It doesn’t have the brand awareness debt that a newcomer in this space would have. Second, Wallet is a native app that lives on Apple devices by default and requires no further download. If shoppers don’t have BNPL apps downloaded beforehand, the only way these firms can process loans is through merchants’ checkout pages. Unfortunately for them, Apple Pay is at least as popular a checkout button as any. Plus, if Apple can manage to push Apple Pay Later to Apple Watch, I don’t see how Affirm or Klarna or PayPal can get there to compete. Third, some BNPL firms are required to pay interests and expenses on the loans they generate. Apple, on the other hand, has an otherworldly balance sheet and generates cash as well as any company in the world. That should give Apple advantage in terms of unit economics. For now, Apple only offers one flavor of BNPL, but as Bloomberg reported, there are more to come. Hence, whatever advantage on product offerings that the likes of Affirm or Klarna have over Apple may soon evaporate.

Do I believe that this is a winner-takes-all space? No. BNPL firms will still have their space with their loyal followers and non-iOS users. However, their growth will likely be capped with the introduction of Apple Pay Later. I expect that we’ll see moves from these providers in the near future as they will try to bolster their positions while Apple Pay Later gets its feet wet.

In short, as someone who is interested in payments and invested in the future health of Apple as a company, I am excited about Apple Pay Later. Not only the service, but also what Apple does to launch it the way they do, I believe, will have an impact on the business. Personally, I am curious to see if my prediction on Apple Business Essentials will ring true. I also want to see how the BNPL space will change with the arrival of Apple Pay Later. Some already cast demise on BNPL providers as they are now just a feature that Apple offers. But I am skeptical of that view. The space is big and just because you compete with Apple, it doesn’t mean you can’t survive or grow.

CNBC: How Walmart Is Betting Big On Stores To Catch Amazon In E-commerce

CNBC has a new clip that focuses on the e-commerce battle between Walmart and Amazon. Have a listen and I’ll share my thoughts below.

There is a lot to unpack here. From my point of view, this is a great business case study with each company having its own advantages. Let’s start with Walmart.

Walmart undoubtedly made progress on the e-commerce front and the pandemic was, ironically, a welcome booster. There are several factors in favor of the iconic supermarket brand. The first is that merchants want to diversity distribution to reduce reliance on Amazon and Walmart is currently a great alternative. Lesser competition alleviates the price pressure on merchants’ shoulders and they can have a better margin on Walmart’s online store. While this factor holds, I don’t imagine that Walmart wants to maintain it in the future. The company definitely wants to attract more merchants to its online store front as the more choices it has, the more valuable as a shopping destination it will become to shoppers. Hence, this so-called advantage is unlikely to persist.

The second advantage on Walmart’s side is its network of more than 4,000 stores in the US. These stores can serve as revenue centers as well as distribution hubs for online orders. Think about it this way. The cost of building a store is fixed. The more products are cycled through that store, the more money Walmart makes. Plus, because stores are scattered throughout the US, they can deliver online orders to consumers much faster than by mail. Faster deliveries make customers happier. Although Amazon has its own network of fulfillment centers, they are different from Walmart stores in that they exist to fulfill orders and do no generate any revenue on the side. The e-commerce behemoth has been building out its cashierless stores across the US, but there are a few concerns that make it difficult for me to envision Amazon closing the gap in this area:

  • Would the Amazon Go stores be big enough to help fulfill online order?
  • If they get big enough, what does that mean for all fulfillment centers that Amazon painstakingly built?
  • How long would it take for Amazon to deliver orders from Amazon Go?

Then, there is grocery. It is a low-margin and tricky-to-handle category as many items are perishable, but it’s a staple that every household needs regularly. Consumers want good groceries at affordable prices and, on top of that, convenience. They can order groceries on Walmart.com and pick them up at the closest stores. Isn’t it better than to wait 2 days for an Amazon delivery? In the video clip, you can see Walmart has a program that brings grocery orders straight to customers’ fridge. To some customers, that’s just magic. While shoppers can technically place an order online and pick it up at Whole Foods, their bill will be a lot higher than at Walmart. The Arkansas-based company has always been the leader in this low-margin category with its unrivaled scale. In tough economic times like right now, consumers even want to keep their grocery bills as low as possible. If consumer preferences towards private labels change for the better in the future, it will play to Walmart’s hands even more. I don’t imagine that Amazon will catch up on this front any time soon.

Last but not least, fuel! Americans love to drive and to drive, they need fuel. This is another way that Walmart and its network of stores, including Sam’s Club, can build a relationship with customers. It’s not surprising that Walmart+ customers can get a few cents off per gallon at participating gas pumps. Unless Amazon invents a way to fill a gas tank digitally, they will have to establish physical presence like Walmart to negate this advantage that its rival has.

But it’s not all rosy for Walmart. Amazon is still the go-to destination when it comes to e-Commerce. Walmart’s desperation to catch up is evidenced by its acceptance of merchants that were kicked out by Amazon because they tried to defraud customers with fake reviews. Yes, it’s great that some merchants flock to Walmart since there is less competition. Nonetheless, who is to say that when Walmart scales its online front and boards more sellers, the existing merchants still feel the same way? When all other factors are equal and the deciding element for merchants is which platform will bring the most revenue, can Walmart attract sellers the same way as Amazon does? Will sellers be motivated enough to manage their presence on two online stores?

Additionally, what about consumers? Amazon routinely adds benefits to Prime membership to keep a firm hold of its most coveted clientele. Soon, Prime subscribers will be able to watch NFL live. Its Prime video collection with hits such as Jack Reacher, The Tomorrow Wars and Jack Ryan, I believe, already draws interest from consumers. There are also Prime Day, Amazon Music, Prescription Delivery etc…Once consumers are hooked on a Prime membership, it’s unlikely that they will go somewhere else to shop. The question to Walmart is whether they can make Walmart+ as good as Prime. Since we haven’t heard any official statistics on the number of Walmart+ subscribers, the jury is still out on how good this loyalty program is. Still, I don’t think it can be considered an equal of Prime any time soon.

All in all, this rivalry is exciting to follow. The companies seem to follow different paths towards domination and for now, I don’t know which one will come out on top and if this is even a winner-takes-all situation at all. For instance, I’d give advantage to Walmart in grocery items and to Amazon in non-grocery items. Consumers may as well get groceries from Walmart and buy everything else from Amazon. Both will have some success taking share from the other, but each will maintain its stronghold. That’s definitely a possibility.

Apple Q2 FY2022 Results

On Thursday, Apple announced the results of their Q2 FY 2022. Overall, the company recorded almost $97.3 billion in revenue the last 90 days, a record for Q2 in Apple’s history. That means they generated more than $1 billion a day. The 9% YoY growth is already on top of the 54% growth last year. To put it a bit more in perspective, only 26 companies in the S&P 500 had more revenue in the whole year of 2021 than what Apple made in this quarter. It’s also worth noting that these numbers were affected by the supply chain constraints. Just really spectacular! While YoY growth rates have been declining, it’s not a surprise given the rule of big numbers. Plus, this year will see some hardware upgrades that can catapult Apple’s revenue to new heights.

Product, Service and Overall Margin
Figure 2 – Product, Service and Overall Margin
Apple 4-quarter rolling average revenue
Figure 1 – Apple’s YoY Revenue Growth & Rolling Average Revenue

While Services still only makes up 20% of the company’s revenue, its gross margin is a spectacular 73% due to higher sales from advertising, the App Store and cloud services. I suspect this trend will continue in the future. It costs Apple little to offer cloud storage and how many Apple device owners who love taking photos and videos yet are limited by the free storage don’t have an iCloud subscription? Apple Care is a warranty program that gives a bit more assurances to device owners. Given that Apple products last a very long time and most customers are careful with their devices, Apple Care is a very profitable service for the company. The iconic tech giant recently launched Apple Business Essentials, which is similar to Apple Care, but for small businesses. The new service has a lot of potential and will be a great contributor to the company’s margin. Last but not least, advertising. It’s not a coincidence that every popular platform wants to have an ads solution. The demand is always there and the margin is high. Apple is still in the early stage of monetizing traffic to the App Store; therefore, will undoubtedly fine-tune its ads operations so that it will keep raking in profitable dollars.

Apple Paid Subscriptions
Figure 3 – Apple Paid Subscriptions

In the last quarter, supply chain constraints still badly affected iPad, making it the only major business segment of Apple without a YoY growth. Wearables and Services haven’t had a down quarter in the last three years. In fact, growth has been in double digits. Mac showed an impressive 15% growth on top of a 70% increase last year. According to Apple’s CFO, “we had a March quarter record for upgraders, while at the same time, nearly half of the customers purchasing a Mac were new to the product”. iPhone, led by the iPhone 13 line-up, grew by 5% after recording 66% increase last year. The company estimated that the lockdown in Shanghai will impact revenue by $4-8 billion in Q3. Hence, the winning streaks of some segments may likely come to a halt in 90 days, but since demand is very strong for Apple products, the company has reasons to be confident in the long-term health.

Apple's Business Segments' YoY Revenue Growth
Figure 4 – Apple’s Business Segments’ YoY Revenue Growth

Regarding geographic segments, Americas is a bright spot with YoY growth of 19%, better than management’s expectations. Europe was adversely impacted by the pause in Russia for a month. China is still Apple’s 3rd biggest segment, but the company warned that Covid-related restrictions would affect demand, at least for Q3 FY2022. Japan and Rest of Asia Pacific felt the impact of unfavorable foreign exchange rates.

Apple Geographic Segments' 4-Quarter Rolling Average Revenue
Figure 5 – Apple Geographic Segments’ 4-Quarter Rolling Average Revenue

Overall, it is another great quarter from Apple despite all the macro challenges. It is proof that the underlying strengths of the business are still intact and goes to show the calm and competent leadership of the management. Zoom out and you will see that there is no other company that can rival Apple in terms of product and service portfolio, the global scale and the customer loyalty. There are challenges and uncertainty ahead, including the war between Russia and Ukraine, Covid-related restrictions in China, the supply constraints, especially silicon shortages, and unfavorable exchange rates. Nonetheless, I am confident Apple will navigate through such challenges deftly and come out stronger.

Disclaimer: I own Apple stocks in my portfolio

Thoughts on Buy With Prime

A few days ago, Amazon made a big announcement on Buy With Prime (BWP). Prime benefits loved by thousands of shoppers, including free & fast delivery, easy return and quick checkout, have been restricted to Amazon.com. That’s how Amazon persuades millions of shoppers to pay $10/month for the privileges. Now, imagine you can enjoy all of those benefits on other websites, not just Amazon. That’s what the new service is all about.

For Prime shoppers, there is virtually nothing that needs to be done beforehand. Once you come across eligible products from merchants that participate in BWP, you just need to repeat the usual checkout process on Amazon.com. There is no additional sign-up. At first glance, everything about BWP looks good, except that here are two things that concern me. The first is return. The language from Amazon reads that only some BWP orders, not all, are eligible for return. To me, the name Buy With Prime insinuates that all products enlisted in the program can be returned hassle-free. As a result, what does it mean that only some are qualified? What about the rest? How do I know which products are returnable and which aren’t? The other thing that gives me pause is that if there is an issue with my BWP orders, I have to contact the sellers. My experience with Amazon Prime so far has been great. I don’t have much to complain about. On one or two occasions when I needed to inquire about my orders, the Customer Service from Amazon was helpful and great. However, I wonder if the same level of excellence can be expected from BWP merchants. In case there are unresolved issues, will Amazon help me? What kind of purchase protection can I expect?

Buy With Prime. Source: Amazon

For Amazon, this is a hit-multiple-birds-with-one-stone move. First, expanding Prime to other online stores brings more selection to shoppers, enhancing the value of Prime. The more valuable shoppers find Prime, the stickier the membership will be and the more grip Amazon has on these coveted shoppers. Such influence will translate into bargaining power in negotiations with merchants and suppliers. Second, this service will help Amazon get the most out of their fulfillment capability. Any merchant wishing to participate in BWP does not need to sell on Amazon.com but must have their orders fulfilled by Amazon. The giant retailer has spent a fortune on building out their fulfillment capacity. In the 2021 shareholder letter, the CEO Andy Jassy wrote:

We spent Amazon’s first 25 years building a very large fulfillment network, and then had to double it in the last 24 months to meet customer demand. We’d been innovating in our fulfillment network for 20 years, constantly trying to shorten the time to get items to customers. In the early 2000s, it took us an average of 18 hours to get an item through our fulfillment centers and on the right truck for shipment. Now, it takes us two. 

Given the level of investments, it’s understandable that Amazon wants to maximize the utility of these fulfillment centers. The more orders the centers process, the higher their utilization and the higher the ROI. If you were Amazon, would you want the same thing? Third, off-Amazon purchase data! Amazon knows the behavior of Prime customers, based on their purchase history on Amazon.com. Nonetheless, they don’t know what these customers buy outside of its online store. The company tried to remedy this issue through initiatives such as Amazon Shopper Panel. With BWP, they can capture purchase data on other online stores and use it for their benefits such as private label launches, targeted ads or fine-tuning product recommendation.

For merchants, there are pros and cons from using BWP. Obviously, the Amazon Pay checkout option can help reduce cart abandonment. That’s the sales pitch that we often see the likes of PayPal or Apple Pay sing. Having Amazon take care of fulfillment is attractive to merchants that do not have the means to set up their own logistics. It’s also great for merchants to own the relationship with shoppers, instead of relinquishing it to Amazon entirely like before. While such benefits carry a great deal of appeal, merchants need to be aware of the risks related to BWP. Firstly, the fees paid to Amazon will cut deep into the margin of these merchants. Secondly, they may open the gate to the henhouse for the fox by letting Amazon know what Prime shoppers order on their website. It’s widely reported that some sellers thrived at first on Amazon.com, only to falter and disappear later when Amazon introduced similar products. Who is to say that it’s not a possibility in this case? In addition, BWP merchants have to be responsible for marketing. The greatest perk of being on Amazon.com is that sellers are almost guaranteed traffic. BWP just takes care of checkout and fulfillment. It doesn’t bring valuable traffic. With the reduced margin, due to Fulfillment by Amazon fees, can merchants afford the marketing expenses too?

The introduction of BWP can be a threat for the likes of PayPal, Shop Pay or Apple Pay. Apple Pay and Shop Pay don’t have a fulfillment solution attached to the checkout button. PayPal does with Happy Returns, even though its scale can’t be compared to Amazon’s. Merchants, especially small ones, will consider BWP because they don’t want to be distracted by all the shipping headaches. The adoption of BWP will certainly decrease the amount of transaction volume processed by PayPal, whose revenue is transaction-based. As a consequence, BWP is not welcoming news for PayPal. To remain competitive, PayPal needs to continue offering more values to merchants and simplify the checkout process as much as possible. In this game, having one more click than your rivals is like being slower by one second in F1. Moreover, they should be wise to point out the threats that Amazon can pose with BWP and hope that they can scare merchants into avoiding BWP. After all, few things are as persuasive as fear.

QR Codes’ popularity in Vietnam

The perks of living in the States as a Vietnam is that I get to see the differences between the two countries in several aspects. One of them is payments. If contactless and tap-to-pay is more common and popular in the US, QR Codes are much more ubiquitous in Vietnam, at least in the big cities. What you see below is in Ho Chi Minh City, the biggest economic hub in Vietnam. When you venture out to smaller and poorer provinces, things may change significantly.

This is how we paid at a convenience store. The cashier scanned the QR code on a phone to process payments.

In the below clip, we were at a local bakery named Tous Les Jours. You can see different QR Codes for different mobile wallets. Consumers can just scan one and make payments. The nature of the transaction requires immediate confirmation since nobody is going to wait 5′ for a payment to go through.

Even mom-and-pop stores like a sugar cane shop and a photocopy shop below allow payments via QR Codes

A sugar cane shop in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) accepts payments via QR Codes
A local photocopy shop in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) accepts payments via QR Codes

Mobile wallets like Momo strive to acquire and retain users. When we paid for our drinks at the sugar cane shop, we got 50% discount out of nowhere even though the transaction amount was only $1.2.

Momo gives users 50% discount on transactions out of nowhere

Apple’s next growth opportunity. Disney+ added more subscribers while raising prices. ESPN+ achieved its FY2024 target

Corporate & Commercial – Apple’s next growth opportunity

Apple has always been a household consumer brand. There are still areas that the company can explore in the consumer space to fuel growth such as the global availability of their services, next generation chips, the AR glass or the long waited yet mysterious Apple Car. I remain excited about Apple’s growth prospect as a consumer staple, but Apple may be more than that in the future. There are signs lately that Apple may make a push into the corporate segment. First, it launched Apple Business Essentials, a device management service for small businesses with fewer than 500 employees. The program is still in early days, but the company already said that thousands of small businesses already participated in the program. That’s Apple’s style: choose to come to the market when a service or product is ready and deploy consistent incrementalism over time. Remember how some ridiculed their introduction of Wearables, which is now their 3rd largest business? And if they manage to build that muscle and processes to deal with small businesses, there is no reason not to think that they can expand their market and go further upstream.

Then on the earnings call, Luca Maestri (Apple’s CFO) revealed this anecdote:

Shopify, for example, is upgrading its entire global workforce to M1-powered MacBook Pro and MacBook Air. By standardizing on M1 Max, Shopify continues its commitment to providing the best tools to help its employees work productively and securely from anywhere. And Deloitte Consulting is expanding the deployment of the Mac Employee Choice program, including offering the new M1 MacBook Pro to empower their professionals to choose devices that work best for them in delivering consulting services.

Source: fool.com

I feel that M1 is the last puzzle piece that Apple needed to start making moves in the corporate market. The chip makes Apple devices more powerful and efficient, exactly what the white-collar folks like myself want and opposite of what we are used to (like all those bulky and burning Dell computers). As employees like Apple’s products, companies are more incentivized to offer such products as perks to retain talent; which plays into Apple’s hands. In the past, whether Apple’s products were the clear winners might be up for debate, but the introduction of their in-house chip put the question to rest.

This week, Apple revealed that future iOS updates would let merchants accept transactions with just a tap on their iPhones. The value chain analysis or how exactly this would benefit Apple are still question marks. I suspect Apple will take a small cut on every transaction like they do with Apple Pay transactions. Also, if merchants rely on an iPhone as a card reader, Apple Business Essentials will suddenly become an appeal so that they can manage their devices properly. These are just two early signs of what Apple can put together for businesses. I am eager to learn what they have in store because I am almost confident that they have a roadmap in mind already.

Disney+ and ESPN+ added more subscribers while raising prices. ESPN+ achieved its FY2024 target

The first quarter of FY2022 was a good one for Disney as the company continued to add more subscribers to its flagship streamer Disney+ outside of India and ESPN+ while increasing Average Revenue Per User (ARPU). The testament to the strength of a product or service lies in the ability to retain customers while raising prices. In that sense, Disney+ has so far defied critics and proven its mettle, showing that its streaming services are capable of challenging anyone else in this highly competitive market. The iconic company set the long term target of 230-260 million Disney+ subscribers by the end of FY2024. There are 8 more quarters to go. To attain that target, Disney needs to deliver a quarterly net add of at least 13 million subscribers. The company is on the right track to do so. In fact, the management said that even without the rights to Indian Premier League, the nation’s cricket competition that is arguably the biggest acquisition tool in the Indian market, it is still confident of meeting the FY2024 guide.

If you look at India, we’re certainly going to try to extend our rights on the IPL. But we’revery confident that even if we were not to go ahead and win that auction that we would still be able to achieve our 230 million to260 million. So it’s an important component for us around the world. Obviously, really important in India, but not critical to us achieving the 230 million to 260 million number that we’ve guided to.

Source: Walt Disney Q1 FY2022 Earnings Call

While Disney+ added more subscribers in the US and Canada than Netflix in the last few quarters, I don’t think that any comparison can be fair. The two streamers are operating at a different scale and life stages. Netflix is much more established and has a much bigger subscriber base. Hence, even though it added fewer customers, we shouldn’t draw any conclusion yet on either.

ESPN+ already achieved the FY2024 guide of 20-30 million subscribers. Its tally at the end of Q1 FY2022 is already 21.4 million. I am sure with an imminent international expansion and addition of rights to more sports, ESPN+ will attain the higher end of the guide range, if not exceed it.

Disney+ North America net add subscribers and ARPU
Disney+ excluding Hotstar net add subscribers and ARPU
ESPN+ net add subscribers and ARPU

Thoughts on PayPal’s latest earnings

What happened?

Last week, PayPal reported its Q4 FY2021 results, causing the stock to reach by almost 25% and reach its 52-week low. Once a $360+ billion company at its peak valuation, PayPal is now worth $148 billion. There are a few contributing factors to this implosion.

The first is the disappointing guidance. A few months ago, the company set the revenue growth for 2022 at 18% which is now replaced by the 15-17% range. The guided Earnings Per Share is $4.67, well below the consensus of $5.21. For Q1 2022, revenue is expected to grow by 6%, significantly lower than the two-digit growth rate usually seen in every quarter since 2019. High inflation, the supply chain issues that have been felt across markets, increased tax rates and tough comparisons to last year’s results are to blame.

Net new active accounts are also a let-down. Total net adds in 2021 stood at 49 million, far lower than the 55 million target reaffirmed in November 2021. This year, PayPal expects to add 15-20 million new accounts. This conservative goal is lower than what PayPal managed in 2018 or 2019 before Covid-19 boosted their business and pulled forward a lot of net new accounts. The management gave two reasons for this muted outlook. First, 4.5 million accounts are found to be illegitimate. Even though the number is immaterial to the overall account base of more than 400 million, it affects the company’s estimate and thinking in terms of net new adds. The second and bigger reason is a new pivot in customer acquisition. Used to plow a lot of money in incentive-led marketing tactics, PayPal is going to abandon low-ROI efforts on low-value customers and instead prioritize high-ROI engagement campaigns which they say have better yields.

Because of the new pivot in customer acquisition, PayPal determined that the target of 750 million active accounts by 2025, which was only set last year on Investor Day, is no longer appropriate. The rumored acquisition of Pinterest a few months ago already called into question the growth outlook. This unexpectedly disappointing development aggravated investor doubt that the management team bit more than they could chew last year and sold investors on unrealistic targets. For me, it is the biggest shock from the earnings call. After Q3 FY2021, I was already concerned about PayPal’s ability to hit its long-term goal, but I, in no way, could expect that they gave up one year into the 5-year plan! Talk about disappointment!

Are the business’ fundamentals still healthy?

Investors are right to be downbeat on PayPal. The announcements on the earnings call gave nothing, but cause for doubt on the health of the business. Nonetheless, I don’t really think that all is lost. The outlook from here isn’t as rosy as we were told before, but one of the most iconic brands in the world can’t just crumble over night. Here are a few reasons why.

The divorce from eBay is strategically essential as it liberates PayPal from the exclusive partnership. EBay is now responsible for only 3% of PayPal’s total payment volume (TPV) and revenue, down from 8% of total TPV and 14% of revenue in the same quarter two years ago. Ex-eBay TPV growth has outpaced total TPV’s every quarter since Q1 2019. This, coupled with the fact that average transactions per active account continues to rise, signals that PayPal’s non-eBay services grew on merit and appeal to consumers.

PayPal's TPV and ex-eBay TPV growth
PayPal’s TPV and ex-eBay TPV growth

Venmo continues to impress with $60.5 billion in TPV and $250 million in revenue in Q4 FY2021. There are 83 million active users in the U.S alone, meaning that almost 1 out of 4 people in the country uses Venmo. The TPV and the popularity are likely to rise with new major partnerships such as the one with Amazon or DoorDash. However, since these partners may command a low take-rate, whether they will help with the monetization remains to be seen. That’s the overall concern with Venmo. Despite the apparent popularity and making up 17% of PayPal’s active account base, Venmo is only responsible for 3.6% of the company’s revenue. The likelihood of merging the two apps any time soon is low. The risk of damaging the Venmo “cult” and taking away its appeal by folding it into the parent app is too big, but at the same time, how would the company entice Venmo users to try out other services? Currently, Venmo is available only in the U.S. What about an international expansion? Investors definitely can use some more disclosures on both issues from the management team.

BNPL is another bright spot. Launched only in August 2020, Pay in 4 already reached $8 billion in total TPV, 12.2 million unique customers and 1.2 million participating merchants. Considering that the parent company has 383 million consumer accounts, 33 million active merchants and 200 markets, there is a lot of growth ahead. As customers who used BNPL delivered 2x average revenue per account, this service will be an important acquisition and engagement tool. Would that translate into money for PayPal? The jury is still out on this question. As there is no fee charged to consumers and no additional service fee to merchants, PayPal is hoping to generate revenue through additional services. This is one of the areas on which I wish to gain additional insights in the near future.

Ironically, I find the new pivot in customer acquisition positive to some extent. While I was disappointed by the abandonment of the 5-year target, I think or at least hope that this is the right move for the business. Let me explain why. I used to receive a lot of incentive-led marketing campaigns from PayPal such as a reward for downloading an app, a discount at a partner store or a chance to win a money pot. As a consumer, I liked these efforts. The investor in me, though, thought that these outreach efforts seemed like a desperate attempt to inflate active account numbers and keep the Street happy with the progress towards the magic 750 million number. But as the active consumer account base grows, you can’t buy cheap engagement forever. Soon, the cost of low ROI campaigns would catch up and it did for PayPal. Therefore, now that the target doesn’t float over their heads any more, the company can be smart about allocating valuable marketing dollars. The next few quarters and the new disclosures on ARPU will be critical in regaining investor trust.

PayPal's marketing tactics
PayPal’s marketing tactics

Competition

Adding fuel to investor doubt is the fact that PayPal has fierce competition in the payment market. The silent killer Apple Pay provides a seamless checkout experience on millions of Apple devices and thousands of online stores. Block/Square is investing and pushing aggressively (such as the acquisition of Afterpay) to gain an upper hand over PayPal to become THE Super App for financial needs. Affirm is evolving from being a pure BNPL player, and adding new capabilities such as eCommerce button, savings and rewards. Additionally, there are Shop Pay and Facebook Pay, native checkout experiences on hugely popular platforms with thousands of merchants and consumers. Last but not least, the rise of real-time payments around the world and in the U.S will also be a threat. Given this elevated level of competition and the sudden change in long-term targets, it’s obvious that PayPal underestimates competitors and overplays their hands. From now on, it’s back to the basics which include constant innovation, addition of value-added services and a firm grip on its engaged and loyal customers.

In summary

The latest quarter is undoubtedly a disaster. There is no other way to describe it. Management overestimated their competitive advantages and consequently set unrealistic goals which led to misguided actions (the rumored acquisition of Pinterest). When such mistakes came into light, the punishment followed, in the form of billions of dollars in market capitalization. But the iconic and trusted brand is still there. PayPal still has incredible assets and millions of active accounts on its platform. The ingredients for redemption are ready. Now it’s up to management to bring about results and restore investor trust.

Venmo’s TPV
Transactions Per Active Account